Equifax Data Breach Requires Action

While most of us have been watching the path of Hurricane Irma, another big news story this past week warrants your attention.  Last week, Equifax announced that a “Cybersecurity Incident” had exposed names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses and, in some cases, driver’s license and credit card numbers, from a whopping 143 million Americans.  We have already received e-mails from clients who have been affected, and expect to receive more since this will likely affect about half of the country.

In fact, this is another massive data breach reminding us how vulnerable we are to thieves seeking our personal information and identity. “Incident” sounds a bit tepid for the magnitude of this particular breach.

Are You Impacted?

To find out if your information has been compromised, check the potential impact on the Equifax website: https://www.equifaxsecurity2017.com/potential-impact/

You should do so for all of your household members, including your underage kids.  In the event that you or one of your family members are affected, Equifax offers to enroll you for free credit monitoring, which they will provide for one year.  I’m generally not a fan of paying for identity theft insurance or credit monitoring services, but there’s no reason not to take advantage of Equifax’s free offer. A credit monitoring service won’t prevent fraud from happening, but WILL alert you when your personal information is being used or requested.  The service includes identity theft insurance, and it will also scan the Internet for use of your Social Security number—assuming you trust Equifax with this information after the breach.

It may take a few weeks before the service becomes effective.  In the meantime, I recommend you plan to monitor transactions on your bank accounts and credit cards.  The credit card companies typically do a pretty good job of catching fraudulent activity quickly and shutting it down, but your own diligence is essential.

Unfortunately, the free credit monitoring service has issues.  According to credit expert John Ulzheimer “You’re only going to get it free for one year” and chances are, your liability is going to last longer. Additionally, it “only applies to your Equifax credit report, and not your credit reports at Experian and TransUnion. That’s like locking one of the three doors to your house.”

I suspect that once the extent of the breach is ultimately revealed, Equifax will highly likely extend the free credit monitoring service period.

How Are YDFS Clients Protected?

Withdrawing funds from a custodian (such as Charles Schwab) account is not possible simply with your login.  This set-up provides higher security than a retail bank or other brokerage account, where a thief could hack your username/password and access your funds.

Without signed documentation and verbal confirmation, funds withdrawn from custodian accounts can only be sent via check to the address of record on the account, or via an electronic transfer to a bank account that has been authorized with previously signed documentation. All wire transfer requests require verbal confirmation before any funds leave your account.

Also, all withdrawals from custodian accounts are seen on the same or next business day by your YDFS team so we can be on the lookout for unusual activity.

If You’re a Victim of Identity Theft

If you’re a victim of this (or any) breach, here’s what to do. The whole process takes about an hour to complete:

  • Contact one of the three credit bureaus Equifax (800-766-0008), Experian (888-397-3742) and TransUnion (800-680-7289) to put a free fraud alert on your credit report. Under Federal law, each is obligated to notify the other two. The alert makes it harder for an identity thief to open more accounts in your name, but experts note that alerts usually just slow down the process of criminals opening accounts in your name; they don’t prevent it. The alert lasts 90 days, but you can renew it, and the alert entitles you to a free credit report from each of the three companies.
  • File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission and print your Identity Theft Affidavit. Use that to file a police report and create your Identity Theft Report.
  • Place a credit-freeze on your credit file, which generally stops all access to your credit report. Unfortunately, you need to contact all three companies to freeze your file. Here are the links: Equifax; ExperianTransUnion. Important note about a freeze: If you need to access credit, you have to unfreeze your records, which can take a few days. The availability of a credit freeze depends on state law or a consumer reporting company’s policies. Some states charge a fee for placing or removing a credit freeze, but it’s free to place or remove a fraud alert. You can sometimes get this service for free if you supply a copy of a police report (which you can probably file and obtain online) or affidavit stating that you believe you are likely to be the victim of identity theft.
    Another advantage: each credit inquiry from a creditor has the potential to lower your credit score, so a freeze helps to protect your score from scammers who file inquiries.

Best Practices to Employ

According to pros like Ulzheimer and professional hacker Kevin Mitnick, the question is not if your information will be compromised, but when. Criminals are actively stealing your passwords, buying and selling your data and reading your emails. There is no single way to protect your coveted identity, but here are eight best practices to employ to keep the criminals at bay.

1) Protect your information:

  • Refrain from providing businesses with your social security number (SSN) just because they ask for it. Give it only when required. In an antiquated practice, doctors, dentists and some lawyers routinely request your social security number for billing (and collection) purposes. Refuse to do business with professionals who insist on supplying your social security number without a true need to know. Medicare recipients take note: your SSN is printed on your current Medicare card, so be careful with it! The process of changing the cards will take some time, but it is in the works.
  • Don’t give personal information over the phone, through the mail or on the Internet unless you have initiated the contact or you know with whom you are dealing. This is especially important to communicate to older relatives or friends, who are prime targets of fraudsters.
  • Beware of over-sharing on social media, where criminals are finding treasure troves of information. Because they are explicitly targeting children under the age of 18, it’s important for parents to talk to their kids and explain why it is so dangerous to share too much personal information online. Share your vacation photos & experiences AFTER you’ve returned home.
  • Update your passwords so they are difficult to hack. NY Daily News found the top ten worst passwords to include: 123456, password, baseball, football, etc. Others have started to use encrypted password managers where you enter one login/password and they manage all your other passwords for you.
  • Review your banking transactions online or on your statements to look for transactions you didn’t make. Report any suspicious activity to your bank promptly.

2) Protect your Password: You know the drill; you should be changing logins and passwords every few months, and sign up for two-factor authentication (where your cell phone is your 2nd device used to authorize access) for those sites that are used frequently.

3) Shop carefully: Stop sending your credit card information over unsecured wireless networks, and when making purchases, use a credit card, which has more fraud protections under federal law than debit cards or online payment services. Free (public) Wi-Fi hotspots are prime targets for banking and credit card information theft. Never do your personal or business banking over these hotspots.

4) Review credit card statements: Before you pay, be sure to spend a few minutes to verify that there are no fraudulent charges. While you’re at it, enroll in your credit card’s notification program, where the company alerts you to charges over a set amount.

5) Review your (and your kids’, for reasons mentioned above) credit report (free) every 12 months at annualcreditreport.com. You want to make sure that nothing fishy has cropped up. If you find an error, report it immediately and stay on top of the process.

6) Protect your Social Security account from identity theft by claiming your record at https://www.ssa.gov/myaccount/. Two-factor authentication will prevent others from attempting to steal your social security identity and records. Do it before they do.

7) Avoid maintaining large balances in checking or savings accounts with a debit card attached: Keep larger account balances in brokerage accounts or accounts without debit and/or check writing features.

8) Opt out of pre-approved credit card offers: ID thieves like to intercept offers of new credit sent via postal mail.  If you don’t want to receive pre-screened offers of credit and insurance, you have two choices: You can opt out of receiving them for five years by calling toll-free 1-888-5-OPT-OUT (1-888-567-8688) or visiting www.optoutprescreen.com. Or you can opt out permanently online at www.optoutprescreen.com.  To complete your request, you must return a signed Permanent Opt-Out Election form, which will be provided after you initiate your online request.

It’s important to remember that breaches like these have happened before and will happen again.  Taking preventative measures like those listed above limit the potential damage of such events.  Please contact us if you have any further questions or concerns regarding this topic.

If you would like to review your current investment portfolio or discuss any other financial planning matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first. If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch. We start with a specific assessment of your personal situation. There is no rush and no cookie-cutter approach. Each client is different, and so is your financial plan and investment objectives.

How to Navigate a Homeowner’s Insurance Claim

The disaster in Texas, for the unfortunate souls living there, reminds us how vulnerable we can be, and how being prepared before disaster strikes, can make the aftermath so much easier. While the odds of losing everything in a natural or man made disaster are relatively low, it helps to know that you took some steps ahead of time, like having a recent video tape of your entire home and it’s contents, and meeting with your insurance agent to update the coverage and discuss the available “riders” to minimize surprises at claim time.

But suppose your number is up, and you’re the victim of a huge natural disaster like Harvey, or have experienced some more local damage, like a tree falling on your house. What are the best practices for filing a claim for the damages your home and property have suffered?

Recently, the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) offered tips on how to get all that you’re entitled to from your insurance company. I’ve added my own personal tips based on my experience dealing with a homeowner’s insurance loss claim.

The CFA starts by noting a disturbing trend: families victimized by Harvey-related wind and flood damage will have to dig deeper into their pockets because few of today’s homeowners have federal flood insurance, and because insurers have been steadily increasing hurricane wind coverage deductibles and imposing other homeowners insurance policy limitations. Discuss flood coverage with your agent, find out the premium, and decide whether your risk is higher than average. If it’s only a few hundred dollars a year, it may be worth it. Also, most people are surprised that some wind damage to roofs may not be covered if your roofing has been neglected or is past its useful life.

Among the tips: Report your claim as promptly as possible, since insurance companies generally handle them on a first come, first serve basis. Be sure to write down your claim number, because insurance company claims departments locate your file most efficiently using your claim number.

Depending on the circumstances, you may be responsible for mitigating the damage. That is, if the dwelling was safe, and you had the ability to take steps to reduce the overall loss (say by shutting off the water supply in the event of a broken water pipe, or fixing a broken window), and you didn’t, your claim payout may be reduced.

Sometimes the damage requires a contractor to come out prior to an insurance adjuster’s arrival to mitigate the damage. Contractors by their very nature can be overzealous or aggressive, so try and be there onsite before they arrive to take pictures and control or limit their activities to damaged areas. You don’t want to be responsible for costs that may not ultimately be covered by insurance. In the case of water damage, keep samples of the wood flooring, carpeting, tiles or wall coverings before they’re hauled off the property. You’ll be glad you did when starting reconstruction and trying to find matching replacements. Remember, it’s your home; nobody cares more about it than you-let the contractors know you’re in charge, and that you won’t be pressured to make unnecessary improvements or replacements.

Meanwhile, maintain receipts for any expenditures related to immediate repairs you had to make to secure your home, or any living expenses (hotel, meals) if you could not return to your home in the wake of the storm, or as a result of your own home damage experience. (If your claim is limited to flood insurance, additional living expenses are usually not covered.)

When an adjuster arrives to survey your damage, ask if he/she is an employee of the insurance company, or an independent adjuster (I.A.) hired by that firm. If this person is an independent adjuster, ask if he or she is authorized to make claim decisions and payments on behalf of your insurance company, and ask for the name of the in-house company adjuster to whom the I.A. is sending your information.

Many insurance companies will send out one of their approved contractors to estimate your property damage. You are not under any obligation to use them, and you should realize that these approved contractors have likely agreed to limit repair costs based on average cost estimates in the area. You might benefit from getting an estimate from other local contractors, since your damage situation will be unique. Just because your insurance company approves of a contractor, that doesn’t mean they’re the best or most qualified for you.

Before you file a claim, know that it helps to have pictures or a video of your possessions, which you can file as evidence of what you’re claiming. Make as thorough a list of your possessions as you can ahead of time. When the claim is made, start a notebook documenting contacts with your insurance company and contractors, writing down the date, time and a brief description of every exchange. Keep receipts from emergency repairs as well as any costs you incur in temporary housing, which may be reimbursable under the “Additional Living Expense” portion of your homeowners’ policy.

Suppose the claim is denied or you feel the offer is too low. At that point, you should ask the company to identify the language in your homeowners’ policy that served as the basis for denying your claim or offering so little. Once the company pinpoints the appropriate language in the policy, you should be able to determine the fairness of the offer. If you feel that the company has slipped new limitations into the policy and has not adequately informed you, it might be a good idea to consult an attorney. If a structural engineer has deemed your repairs not due to a disaster (but say to normal wear and tear), it may pay to hire your own licensed structural engineer to refute the insurance company’s report. If it’s an independent engineer hired by the insurance company, and you disagree with his or her conclusions, you have every right to call and discuss their conclusions with them.

For those not living through Harvey, this might be a good time to look hard at your current policy. The CFA has noticed that new provisions are showing up which limit replacement cost payments, and many insurers no longer cover the additional costs to bring a damaged home up to new building codes (wiring, elevation for flood risk, etc.) Remember that sewer backup coverage is usually an additional low cost rider, so consider adding it, especially if your home has a finished or even an unfinished basement.

Once the insurance company tells you the reasons for its action, it cannot produce new reasons for denying payment or making a low offer at a later time. You have locked them in—an important protection for the consumer.

If you still feel that their claim settlement offer is too low, or the claim denial is wrong, complain to an executive in the firm’s consumer relations department (who is paid to keep consumers happy) rather than an executive in the claims department (who is paid to keep claims costs low). In the conversation, use the records you’ve kept since the claim process began. The more serious the insurance company sees that you are in documenting how you were treated, the more likely they will make a more reasonable offer.

If that doesn’t get you anywhere, complain to your state insurance department. All states will at least seek a response to your complaint from your insurance company, which will give you more information as you consider your next steps.

Your last option is to consult a lawyer. If you’re sitting in the attorney’s office, the notes you took take on additional importance. If your treatment was particularly bad, the courts in many states will allow additional compensation if the insurance company acted in “bad faith.” Since insurance companies take your money in exchange for their promise to make you whole when disaster strikes, they must act in utmost good faith in performing that obligation. With that said, it may be time to evaluate whether the insurance company you’re doing business with is “solid” and reputable enough to handle a flood of claims. Saving a few dollars on insurance premiums by using lesser known (and lesser capitalized) insurers may not be worth it.

Finally, try and be onsite to inspect each step of the rebuilding process once underway. Insurance repair estimates can be tediously detailed, and are not always easy to understand. But you want to be sure that the appropriate quality replacement materials are used, and that workmanship is of the highest standards. You may have to do some of your own legwork to find suitable replacement materials if the contractor tells you that your original materials are no longer available. After the work is done, you’ll likely find or remember (damaged) items that were missed during the original claim, so most insurance companies give you 1-2 years after the “claim date” to add other items that are detected, without having to file a new claim, or incurring a second deductible. Keep that important deadline in mind.

If you would like to review your current investment portfolio or discuss any other financial planning matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first. If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch. We start with a specific assessment of your personal situation. There is no rush and no cookie-cutter approach. Each client is different, and so is your financial plan and investment objectives.

Source: http://consumerfed.org/press_release/consumers-get-fair-claims-payments-wake-hurricane-harvey/

The MoneyGeek thanks guest writer Bob Veres for his contribution to this post

A Good Time to Sell?

I got a call this week from a client who wanted to sell more than 50% of their investments over fear that the North Korea situation might balloon into something big. Despite my assurances that the market is trading within 1% of an all-time high, and if institutions with billions of dollars under management weren’t selling, why would we? What do we know that they, with their millions of dollars in market and geo-political risk assessment research, don’t know? And once you sell, how will you know when to get back in?

So far, the world markets seem to be shrugging off the sabre-rattling coming from North Korea (normal behavior) and the U.S. White House (complete departure from policy). The smart money is betting that the distant but suddenly headline-grabbing possibility of the first conflict between two countries armed with nuclear weapons will amount to a tempest in a teapot.

Meanwhile, the U.S. stock market has been testing new highs for months, and experts cannot quite explain why valuations have been rising amid such low volatility.

So the question is quite logical: isn’t this a good time to pare back or get out of the market until valuations return to their historical norms, or at least until the North Korean “crisis” blows over?

The quick answer is that there’s never a good time to try to time the market, especially as concerns geo-political events. The longer answer is that this may actually be a particularly bad time to try it.

What’s happening between the U.S. and North Korea is admittedly unprecedented. In the past, the U.S. largely ignored the bluster and empty threats coming out of the tiny, dirt-poor communist regime, and believe it or not, that also seems to be what the military is doing now. Yes, our President did blurt out the term “fire and fury” in impromptu remarks to the press, and later doubled down on the term by suggesting that his warning wasn’t worded strongly enough. But the U.S. military seems to be responding with a yawn. There are no Naval carrier groups anywhere near Korea at the moment; the U.S.S. Carl Vinson and the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt are both still engaged in training exercises off the U.S. West Coast, and the U.S.S. Nimitz is currently patrolling the Persian Gulf. Nor has the State Department called for the evacuation of non-essential personnel from South Korea, as it would if it believed that tensions were leading toward a military confrontation.

Meanwhile, on the home front, the U.S. economy continues to grow slowly but steadily, and in the second quarter of 2017, 72.2% of companies in the S&P 500 index have reported earnings above forecast.

What does this all mean? It means that you will probably see a certain amount of selling due to panic over the North Korean standoff, which will make stocks less expensive—a classic buying opportunity. August and September have been somewhat volatile months in the past, so the North Korean standoff gives some “cover” for selling. Nonetheless, history has given all of us many opportunities to panic, going back to World War I and World War II, and more recently 9/11—but those who stayed the course reaped enormous benefits from those who abandoned their stock positions. It should be understood that it’s not the known perils that usually cause a major market selloff; it’s the ones that we don’t see coming.

If you’re feeling panic over the North Korean situation, by all means, go in the nearest bedroom and scream—and then share some sympathy for the Americans living in the island territory of Guam, which is in the direct path of the North Korean bluster. Sure, if you have held your investments throughout this bull market and haven’t taken any profits, it doesn’t hurt to trim a few positions or to hedge them. Just don’t sabotage your financial plan and well-being in the process by selling a large chunk of your investments in response to what may amount to a non-event.

If you’re having trouble sleeping at night worrying over your portfolio, then you are probably holding more risk than you should (you know your risk score, right?)  So there’s nothing wrong with reducing the risk of your portfolio if it makes you uncomfortable. Work with your advisor to reduce the risk of your portfolio to the “sleeping soundly” point. Just don’t wait for geopolitical events to force you to sell in a panic.

A recent true story I read, helps keep these sort of things in perspective:
During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, warships were parked off the coast of Cuba, and the Soviet Union and the U.S have nuclear weapons pointed at each other in the highest possible state of alert. The market is falling and Mike Epstein is at the center of the action as a trader on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Mike turns to his boss and asks what he should do. His boss tells him “hit the ask and buy ‘em.” Mike politely questions the sanity of his boss because he realizes the world may be coming to end in a nuclear holocaust. His boss tells him to keep buying, “if they don’t nuke us the market will bounce, and if they do you won’t have to worry about paying for them!”

If you would like to review your current investment portfolio or discuss any other financial planning matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first. If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch. We start with a specific assessment of your personal situation. There is no rush and no cookie-cutter approach. Each client is different, and so is your financial plan and investment objectives.

 

The MoneyGeek thanks guest writer Bob Veres for his contribution to this post.

10 Investment Mistakes to Avoid

There are many ways to lose money while investing your money. Here’s a look at 10 proven ways to manage your stock portfolio into the ground in no time.

The temptation to sell is always highest when the market drops the furthest.

Who needs a pyramid scheme or a crooked money manager when you can lose money in the stock market all by yourself?  If you want to help curb your loss potential, avoid these 10 strategies:

  1. Go with the herd. If everyone else is buying it, it must be good, right? Wrong. Investors tend to do what everyone else is doing and are overly optimistic when the market goes up and overly pessimistic when the market goes down. For instance, in 2008, the largest monthly outflow of U.S. domestic equity funds occurred after the market had fallen over 25% from its peak. And in 2011, the only time net inflows were recorded was before the market had slid over 10%.
  2. Put all of your bets on one high-flying stock. If only you had invested all your money in Apple ten years ago, you’d be a millionaire today. Perhaps, but what if, instead, you had invested in Enron, Conseco, CIT, WorldCom, Washington Mutual, or Lehman Brothers? All were high flyers at one point, yet all have since filed for bankruptcy, making them perfect candidates for the downwardly mobile investor.
  3. Buy only when the market is up. If the market is on a tear, how can you lose? Just ask the hordes of investors who flocked to stocks in 1999 and early 2000—and then lost their shirts in the ensuing bear market.
  4. Sell when the market is down. The temptation to sell is always highest when the market drops the furthest. And it’s what many inexperienced investors tend to do, locking in losses and precluding future recoveries.
  5. Stay on the sidelines until markets calm down. Since markets almost never “calm down,” this is the perfect rationale to never get in. In today’s world, that means settling for a miniscule return that may not even keep pace with inflation.
  6. Buy on tips from friends. Who needs professional advice when your new buddy from the gym can give you some great tips? If his stock suggestions are as good as his abs workout tips, you can’t go wrong.
  7. Rely on the pundits for advice. With all the experts out there crowding the airwaves with their recommendations, why not take their advice? But which advice should you follow? Jim Cramer may say buy, while Warren Buffett says sell. Does their time frame and risk tolerance even come close to yours? How would you know? Remember that what pundits sell best is themselves.
  8. Go with your gut. Fundamental research may be OK for the pros, but it’s much easier to buy or sell based on what your gut tells you. Had problems with your laptop lately? Maybe you should sell that Hewlett Packard stock. When it comes to hunches, irrationality rules.
  9. React frequently to market volatility. Responding to the market’s daily ups and downs is a surefire way to lock in losses. Even professional traders have a poor track record of guessing the market’s bigger shifts, let alone daily fluctuations. Market volatility is a good teacher of bad short-term investing habits. Refuse to be a student.
  10. Set it and forget it. Ignoring your portfolio until you’re ready to cash it in gives it the perfect opportunity to go completely out of balance, with past winners dominating. It also makes for a major misalignment of original investing goals and shifting life-stage priorities. Instead, re-balance your portfolio on a regular basis and keep cash available so you can buy when others are panicking.  Ignoring your quarterly statements definitely won’t improve your investment performance.

If you would like to review your current investment portfolio or discuss any other financial planning matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.  If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch. We start with a specific assessment of your personal situation. There is no rush and no cookie-cutter approach. Each client is different, and so is your financial plan and investment objectives.

Sources:

ICI; Standard & Poor’s. The stock market is represented by the S&P 500, an unmanaged index considered representative of large-cap U.S. stocks. These hypothetical examples are for illustrative purposes only, and are not intended as investment advice.

Crypto-Currency: The Next Tulip Craze?

Imagine transacting business or buying goods and services one day without using a single dollar bill or other country currency.  Imagine further that no one country or organization controls the currency and no one can create further units to dilute the value of your buying power. That’s the promise of crypto-currencies, which, since the first one was introduced in 2009, have been gaining much attention and buying.

In fact, one candidate for the greatest bull market run (uptrend) in financial history is the recent run-up in price of the Bitcoin—the crypto-currency favored by international arms dealers and drug cartels, but also gaining acceptance at some retail locations. The so-called “internet of money” is not backed by any government, which its promoters say is a good thing, because the currency is not subject to quantitative easing, better known as the over-caffeinated money printing presses in Washington, the U.K., Brussels or Tokyo. Ironically, to acquire bitcoins, you’ll have to exchange your dollars, pounds, euros or yen.

Of course, these are not actual coins; the currency exists in “wallets” that are tracked through a global system that updates everyone’s holdings; your “wallet” is on your computer, and sophisticated computers can “mine” new “coins” by solving complex algorithms that also help keep the money tracked. In the early days, there were lurid stories of peoples’ wallets getting hacked, but the crypto-processing seems to be safer now.

As recently as 2011, you could have bought any number of bitcoins for practically $0. In fact, seven years ago, a programmer spent 10,000 bitcoins to purchase two Papa John’s pizzas. Today, a single “coin” is selling for about $2,513, no doubt causing the programmer to wish that he’d held onto his coins for a few more years. But as you can see on the chart, the ride for bitcoin holders has been bumpy, and much of the price run-up has been recent. If you’ve ever experienced a market bubble, you know this is what they look like (and two inquiries about buying bitcoin at my office in the last two weeks tells me that a “correction” in the price is likely not too far off).

CA - 2017-6-8 - Crypto-Bubble

But why would the price ever drop? For one thing, the Bitcoin currency now has crypto-currency rivals, among them a similar technology and market system called Ethereum. For the first time, Bitcoins actually make up less than 50% of the crypto-marketplace. For another, costs per transaction—which are supposed to be zero—have risen to an average of $4.75, and it sometimes takes a month for the transaction to settle.

Beyond that, there’s a long-running dispute between the developers of Bitcoin who process transactions, and the “miners” who create the coins, which doesn’t look likely to be settled any time soon. It’s been speculated that Bitcoin will split into two factions, which users will have to choose between. A possible glimpse into the future happened when a new startup called Coinbase was touted as the marketplace that would finally bring Bitcoin to the mainstream. Coinbase was backed by the New York Stock Exchange. After considering its options, Coinbase decided to create a new currency alternative to Bitcoin, called Token—which will be built on Ethereum technology.

The conclusion: This is not a bandwagon you want to jump on at current prices. While prices might work their way higher in the short term, you’ll want to wait for more clarity on which ones will survive, and how governments will respond and attempt to regulate the exchanges. Our traditional currencies aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

If you would like to review your current investment portfolio or discuss any other financial planning matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first. If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch. We start with a specific assessment of your personal situation. There is no rush and no cookie-cutter approach. Each client is different, and so is your financial plan and investment objectives.

sources:

http://www.coindesk.com/price/

http://www.cnbc.com/2017/05/22/bitcoin-price-hits-fresh-record-high-above-2100.html

https://www.forbes.com/sites/laurashin/2017/06/07/bitcoin-is-at-an-all-time-high-but-is-it-about-to-self-destruct/?utm_source=TWITTER&utm_medium=social&utm_content=929485744&utm_campaign=sprinklrForbesMainTwitter#4fa5a25dcb31

The MoneyGeek thanks guest writer Bob Veres for his contribution to this post

Second Quarter 2017 YDFS Market Review

The doom and gloom crowd will have to re-up their calls for an economic and market crash until next quarter. As is their MO, “early and often” calls of demise, until they ultimately get it right, will continue. Much to their dismay, the 2nd quarter of 2017 was a good one for markets worldwide.

The U.S. stock market has more than tripled in value during the runup that started in March 2009, and the most recent quarter somehow managed to accelerate the upward trend. We have just experienced the 3rd best first half, in terms of U.S. market returns, of the 2000s.

The Wilshire 5000 Total Market Index—the broadest measure of U.S. stocks—rose 2.95% for the quarter, finishing the first half of the year up 8.73%. The comparable Russell 3000 index is up 8.93% for the year so far.

Looking at large cap stocks, the Wilshire U.S. Large Cap index gained 3.08% in the second quarter, to stand at a 9.27% gain for the first two quarters. The Russell 1000 large-cap index finished the first half of the year with a similar 9.27% gain, while the widely-quoted S&P 500 index of large company stocks gained 2.41% for the quarter and is up 8.08% in the first half of 2017.

Meanwhile, the Russell Midcap Index gained 7.99% in the first two quarters of the year.

As measured by the Wilshire U.S. Small-Cap index, investors in smaller companies posted a relatively modest 1.65% gain over the second three months of the year, to stand at a 3.95% return for 2017 so far. The comparable Russell 2000 Small-Cap Index finished the first half of the year up 4.99%, while the technology-heavy Nasdaq Composite Index broke the 6,000 barrier in April, rose 4.18% for the quarter and is up 14.14% in the first half of the year.

International investments are finally delivering returns to our portfolios. The broad-based EAFE index of companies in developed foreign economies gained 5.03% in the recent quarter, and is now up 11.83% for the first half of calendar 2017. In aggregate, European stocks have gone up 14.49% so far this year, while EAFE’s Far East Index has gained 10.45%. Emerging market stocks of less developed countries, as represented by the EAFE EM index, rose 5.47% in the second quarter, giving these very small components of most investment portfolios a remarkable 17.22% gain for the year so far.

Looking over the other investment categories, real estate, as measured by the Wilshire U.S. REIT index, gained 1.78% gain during the year’s second quarter, posting a meager 1.82% rise for the year so far. The S&P GSCI index, which measures commodities returns, lost 7.25% for the quarter and is now down 11.94% for the year, in part due to a 20.43% drop in the S&P petroleum index. Gold prices are up 7.69% for the year, and silver has gained 3.28%.

In the bond markets, longer-term Treasury rates haven’t budged, despite what you might have heard about the Fed tightening efforts. Coupon rates on 10-year Treasury bond rates have dropped a bit to stand at 2.30% a year, while 30-year government bond yields have dropped in the last three months from 3.01% to 2.83%.

By any measure, this represents a strong first half of the year, driven (as you can see by the graph) by the S&P 500 tech sector, biotech firms and information technology companies generally. What is interesting is that investors appear to be flooding into these business categories because they are the ones most likely to grow their sales even if the economic environment were to turn sour—which suggests a growing bedrock of pessimism about future economic growth among seasoned investors.

2nd Quarter 2017 Review US Stock Performance

Is that justified? Economic growth was admittedly meager in the first quarter—U.S. GDP (gross domestic product) grew just 1.4% from the beginning of January to the end of March, a figure that was actually revised upwards from initial estimates of 0.7%. That represents a slowdown from the 2.1% growth in the fourth quarter of last year, when the country was being managed by a different Presidential Administration. It might be helpful to note that the budget proposals floating around Washington, D.C. make the optimistic assumption of an economic growth rate of 3.0%. If the economy fails to achieve that rate, then watch out for a significant rise in the federal deficit. I suspect economic growth will come in closer to 2.4%

There is room for hope. The Atlanta Federal Reserve recently forecasted that the U.S. economy will grow at a 2.9% rate for the year’s third quarter. We won’t have definitive evidence of that until sometime in October, but our fingers are crossed. More good news: the unemployment rate is at a near-record low of 4.7%, and wages grew at a 2.9% rate in December, the best increase since 2009. The underemployment rate, which combines the unemployment rate with part-time workers who would like to work full-time, has fallen to 9.2%–the lowest rate since 2008.

Meanwhile, the energy sector, which was a big winner last year, has dragged down returns in 2017. This proves once again the value of diversification; just when you start to question the value of holding a certain investment, or wonder why the entire portfolio isn’t crowded into one that is outperforming, the tide turns and the rabbit becomes the hare and the hare becomes the rabbit. If only this were predictable. I like to say that the only problem with consistently accurate market timing is getting the timing right :-).

There are many uncertainties to watch in the days ahead. The U.S. Congress is still debating a health care package, and has promised to revise our corporate and individual income tax code later this year. There’s an infrastructure package somewhere on the horizon, and perhaps a round or two of tariffs on imported goods. Inflation often follows when the Fed raises rates, but we don’t know if or when the Fed will do that, or by how much.

2nd Quarter 2017 Review S&P500 Recovery

Meanwhile, the current bull market is aging, and as you can see from the accompanying chart, the runup has lasted for longer than anybody would have expected when we came out of the gloomy period after the 2008 crisis. However, bull markets don’t die of old age; they die of overexuberance, something we don’t currently have in the current market environment, as many are still quite pessimistic on the market and our economic prospects, and are therefore still on the sidelines or woefully underinvested. What I can say is that stock valuations are a bit stretched by some traditional measures, but I could have said that for the last 2-3 years. Market (over)valuation is not a very good market timing tool.

Nonetheless, we are moving ever closer to a period when stock prices will inevitably go down. That day cannot be predicted in advance, but it is always good to spend a moment and ponder how much of a downturn you would be comfortable with when markets finally turn against us. If your answer is less than 20%, or close to that figure (which is the definition of a bear market), this might be a good time to revisit your stock and bond allocations. It never hurts to take some profits off the table during the good times, to have some cash to re-deploy after a protracted downturn. On the other hand, if you’re not fearful of a downturn, then the next bear market will be a terrific buying opportunity for all of us.

If you would like to review your current investment portfolio or discuss any other financial planning matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first. If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch. We start with a specific assessment of your personal situation. There is no rush and no cookie-cutter approach. Each client is different, and so are your financial plan and investment objectives.

 

Sources:

Wilshire index data: http://www.wilshire.com/Indexes/calculator/

Russell index data: http://www.ftse.com/products/indices/russell-us

S&P index data: http://www.standardandpoors.com/indices/sp-500/en/us/?indexId=spusa-500-usduf–p-us-l–

Nasdaq index data:

http://quotes.morningstar.com/indexquote/quote.html?t=COMP

http://www.nasdaq.com/markets/indices/nasdaq-total-returns.aspx

International indices: https://www.msci.com/end-of-day-data-search

Commodities index data: http://us.spindices.com/index-family/commodities/sp-gsci

Treasury market rates: http://www.bloomberg.com/markets/rates-bonds/government-bonds/us/

Bond rates:

http://www.bloomberg.com/markets/rates-bonds/corporate-bonds/

General:

https://www.ft.com/content/cb5b1156-5d9e-11e7-b553-e2df1b0c3220

https://wdef.com/2017/06/29/economy-grew-1-4-in-first-quarter-higher-than-previous-estimates/

http://money.cnn.com/2017/01/06/news/economy/december-jobs-report-2016/index.html?iid=EL

The MoneyGeek thanks guest writer Bob Veres for his contribution to this post

 

 

Why Short-term Investment Performance Doesn’t Matter

The phone rings from a prospect looking for a new advisor and, after exchanging a bit of information on how financial planning and investment planning are long term endeavors that go hand in hand, the prospect inevitably asks about performance. Do we beat the S&P 500 index? What kind of returns can he expect as a client? What have been my historical rates of return? How often will I report on portfolio performance?

After explaining that every client is unique, and past performance has no bearing on the future, the prospect persists in pursuing performance information. I then emphasize the perils of a focus on short-term performance, the superior benefits of a focus on goals & dreams, risk tolerance, asset allocation and time frame.  Mostly I then get a thank you and don’t hear from the prospect ever again.

If you’re a client of a financial planner, you probably receive portfolio reports every three months—a form of transparency that financial planning professionals introduced at a time when the typical brokerage statement was impossible to decipher. But it might surprise you to know that most professionals think there is actually little value to any quarterly reporting or performance information, other than to reassure you that you actually do own a diversified portfolio of investments. It’s very difficult to know if you’re staying abreast of the market, and for most of us, that’s not really relevant anyway.

Why?

The only way to know if your investments are “beating the market” is to compare their performance to “the market,” which is not easy. You can compare your return to the Dow Jones Industrial Average, but that index represents only 30 stocks, all of them large companies. Most people’s investment portfolios include a much larger variety of assets: U.S. stocks and bonds, foreign stocks and bonds, both including stocks of large companies (large cap), companies that are medium-sized (midcap) and smaller firms (small cap). There may be stocks from companies in emerging market countries like Sri Lanka and Mexico. There may be real estate investments in the form of REITs and investment exposure to shifting commodities prices, like wheat, gold, oil and live cattle.

In order to know for sure that your particular batch of investments out-performed or under-performed “the market,” you would need to assemble a “benchmark” portfolio made up of index funds in each of these asset categories, in the exact mix that is in your own portfolio. Even if you could do that precisely, daily, weekly and monthly, market movements would distort the original portfolio mix by causing some of your investments to gain value (and become larger pieces of the overall mix) and others to lose value (and become smaller pieces), and those movements could be different from the movements inside the benchmark. After a month, your portfolio would be less comparable to the benchmark you so painstakingly created and would be rendered virtually useless.

Many professionals believe that there are several keys to evaluating portfolio performance in a meaningful way—and the approach is very different from comparing your returns with the Dow’s.

1) Take a long view: What your investments did last month or last quarter is purely the result of random movements in the market, what professionals call “white noise.” But you might be surprised to know that even one-year returns fall into the “white noise” category. It’s better to look at your performance over five years or more; better still to evaluate through a full market cycle, from, say, the start of a bull (up-trending) market, through a bear (down-trending) market, and to the start of a new bull market. However, you should remember that there are no clear markers on the roadside that say: “This line marks the start of a new bull market.”

2) Compare your performance to your goals, not to your friends’ portfolio: Let’s suppose that our financial plan indicated that your investments needed to generate 5% returns above the rate of inflation in order for you to have a great chance of affording a long, comfortable retirement. If that’s your goal, then chances are, your portfolio is not designed to beat the market; it represents a best guess as to which investments have the best chance of achieving that target return, through all the inevitable market ups and downs between now and your retirement date. If your returns are negative over three to five years, that means you’re probably falling behind on your goals—and you might be taking too much risk in your portfolio.

3) Recognize that some of your investments will go down, even in strong bull markets:  The concept of diversification means that some of your holdings will inevitably move in opposite directions, return-wise, from others (believe it or not, this is a good thing!). If all of your investments are going up in a strong market, chances are they will all be going down in a weak one. Ideally, the overall trend will be upward—the investments are participating in the growth of the global economy, but not all at the same rate and with a variety of setbacks along the way. If you see some negative returns, understand that those are the investments you’re counting on to give you positive returns if/when other parts of your investment mix are suddenly, probably unexpectedly, turning downward.

A focus on under-performing funds or stocks in the short-term can cause you to make short-term detrimental moves with your portfolio. If the underlying fundamentals of the stock or fund are intact, just perhaps out-of-favor in the short term (1-3 years), you shouldn’t tinker with them (assuming your reason for buying hasn’t changed). Treat your portfolio as a combination of ingredients that individually come together to make a tasty treat. Removing or focusing on one or more individual ingredients (say because it’s too salty or sour) can turn a tasty treat into a bland dish.

Too often I see clients focus on individual funds or sectors that are under-performing in the short term, and they want to sell them at what may turn out to be the bottom.  This is one reason why numerous Dalbar studies of individual investor behavior show that most of them under-perform even the funds they own (let alone the markets overall).  I try to explain that markets, industries and sectors are cyclical. They come in and out of favor as large portfolio managers make decisions based on their perception of the stage of the economic cycle. You shouldn’t try and emulate them.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look at your portfolio statement when it comes out. Make sure the investments listed are what you expected them to be, and let your eye drift toward the longer time periods. Notice which investments rose the most and which were down and you’ll have an indication of the overall economic climate. And if your overall portfolio beat the Dow this quarter, or over longer periods of time, well, that probably only represents “white noise” …

If you would like to review your current investment portfolio or discuss any other financial planning matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first. If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch.

The MoneyGeek thanks guest writer Bob Veres for his contribution to this post.